When I walk into the bar and see people turn to look at me; I’m always filled with fear. Bars. night clubs and wine bars by the harbour; when I walk in I am scared.
This was always the case in the wine bars in town, the locals pub and the busy straight nightclub; I always knew to be aware of myself. I am a skinny camp OBVIOUSLY gay man- at least, that’s what society tells me I am. I walk in nervously, hoping nobody is going to take issue with it; that they aren’t going to spot me checking their friend out, accidentally, as he stands at the bar ordering his drink.
I have come to know and accept the fear that a night out in a ‘straight world’ might, just might, be an unpleasant experience. Countless times, I have pretended not to hear the rugby-player type, burly bloke and his friends talking about the ‘queer’ sitting in the corner with a group of girls….I pretend not to be scared.
I pretend that my sexuality doesn’t make me vulnerable- or at the very least, make me feel as if I am. I have spent the last 11 years pretending that…it has become second nature.
Five years ago, I first walked into a gay bar in the Medway Towns. It wasn’t long before I knew the polite smile of almost every regular face there; at one point or another, I had exchanged words with almost all of the regular customers. In that place, at that time….I didn’t have to pretend.
I was free to be me.
Then I tested positive for HIV.
Quickly the whispers started…the discreet pointing, the ‘don’t-look-now’ glances started and of course…a few comments said just loud enough so I was able to hear. One night, for four hours, I pretended.
I pretended not to hear them.
I pretended not to see them.
I pretended not to notice them.
For four hours, I pretended I wasn’t hurt, devastated and scared.
I felt betrayed by every single one of the polite smiles that I had ever received, every conversation, every Facebook friend request I had ever gotten. I felt robbed of every good memory I had of that place. My safe space where I felt free suddenly became a place I wanted to run from.
In those four hours…a lot of courage came in the form of alcohol…and in my drunken state; I shouted as loud as I could
“YES! I HAVE HIV! YOU CAN ALL STOP GOSSIPING NOW! IF YOU WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING…ASK ME TO MY FACE!”
The long story short was that, after the initial shock, the people in the bar that had stared, pointed and gossiped…eventually stopped.
Almost three years later….I thought those days were long gone.
I was wrong.
I went out last weekend to a bar I had only been to twice before, and something was said; I don’t know how or why; but a rumour was started that night that I have AIDS. Not even HIV….AIDS. Instead of anyone asking me, talking to me or having the front to say it to me…I had to deal with whispering…again.
The entire night; I had to pretend I hadn’t heard what was said. I had to pretend I was having a good time. I had to pretend like I didn’t feel that the last three years spent accepting my HIV status myself, hadn’t been a waste of time. I had to pretend I wasn’t upset, confused or ashamed- I pretended that I didn’t notice.
As I had in 2012, I found courage from somewhere and decided I wouldn’t allow complete strangers to make me feel too ashamed to go out to a place that I shouldn’t feel ashamed in! When I got there, the people I am talking about were not there. Friends started to arrive and I was starting to relax. I went to the toilet, and as I was walking back- I bumped straight into one of the people who I had heard reference AIDS in relation to me.
I pretended I didn’t want to blank him….I smiled, and he leant in for a kiss on the cheek.
I stupidly thought that maybe he had discovered that actually, I don’t have AIDS, and this was his way of reassuring himself that he wasn’t a bad person after all.
To say I saw him staring a few times would be a lie. To say I saw him staring more than a few times would be an understatement. I first noticed the ‘see that guy over there but don’t stare’ move…then it got more and more obvious. By the end of the night EVERY SINGLE TIME I looked across the bar, him, his friend or both of them were looking across the bar at me. I feel like I have to make it clear….this wasn’t a lustful stare by ANY stretch of the imagination- and it felt as if they wanted me to know that they were doing it.
I pretended….and pretended….and pretended some more.Twice during the night I had to go outside and stop myself from crying because after two and a half years of being proud to be an activist….they made me feel more ashamed than I ever have been since the second I was told I tested positive.
I wish I could have screamed at them;
I CAN SEE YOU!
I CAN HEAR YOU!
I DO NOTICE YOU!
The fact I have HIV is not a secret; and I am doing my best at the moment to pretend I don’t hate myself for having it…I just wish they knew just how much it took for me to go to that bar this weekend, and just how much what they were doing hurt.
It is the worst feeling in the world to know that the worst stigma I have faced because of my status; nearly always comes from within the LBGTQ community….How am I supposed to have pride in that?